The death that changed my life
 

What am I doing? Seriously, why am I doing this?

Those were the questions I was consumed with following the tragic death of Austrian Ulrike Maier while racing downhill in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany on Jan. 29, 1994.

The death of Austrian Ulrike Maier two weeks prior to the 1994 Olympics shook the alpine skiing community to its core. (Reuters)The death of Austrian Ulrike Maier two weeks prior to the 1994 Olympics shook the alpine skiing community to its core. (Reuters)

I can remember so much of that day as if it was yesterday. It was race day, and how I loved race day! My blood ran just a little hotter, my focus was sharper and my commitment to the thrill of downhill racing was at its peak. The course was steep and icy; right up my alley. I loved racing against the clock, I relished the challenge of being the best I could be when it counted the most.

But that day, that race day, ended in a tragic way. Ulrike, a two-time world champion, raced in Bib 32. Her four-year-old daughter, Melanie, was at the finish cheering for her mama.

Recently, the ski community has been rocked again by the tragic deaths of World Cup downhill racer David Poisson of France and young Max Burkhart of Germany. The loss of two lives within a month of each other, and both on Alberta snow, hits extremely close to home for so many of us.

Racers, coaches, officials, parents, volunteers, sponsors, and fans of ski racing have all voiced love and support, questions and concerns. In times of grief it seems  impossible that life goes on.

 

But as in life, the ski season continues and the racing resumes. Counselors and sports psychologists have been helping the ski community navigate its way forward, and at the same time many of us find ourselves in deep reflection.

 
 

Memories bring tears

A literal flood of memories from 1994 have brought me to tears; it’s been nearly 24 years and I can still feel it all. I feel the tension in my gut. The pain in my heart. I feel the confusion brought on by the onslaught of coldness that completely extinguished the passion I had for racing.

Kerrin Lee-Gartner had a lot of soul searching to do in 1994. (Reuters)Kerrin Lee-Gartner had a lot of soul searching to do in 1994. (Reuters)

What am I doing? Seriously, why am I doing this?

Everyone deals with grief and tragedy in their own way. For me, and for my husband Max, it was crystal clear that I needed to be able to answer those two questions before I even thought of defending my Olympic downhill title in Norway. The two of us packed up and left the World Cup circuit, flew home to my parents to heal and to find the answers.

I wondered how the World Cup circuit could continue in Europe. I was confused how the other favorites for the Lillehammer Winter Olympics could keep racing.

A few things were obvious: I was shaken to my core. Shaken to  the point that I wasn’t sure I wanted to race downhill again. Max knew he couldn’t watch me race again, and I was suddenly aware of just what I was risking racing downhill. Max and I had been married nearly five years and I had already won my dream race in the 1992 Olympics. The risks of downhill were no longer just about torn up knees and broken bones; I was ultimately risking the rest of our happily ever after.

 

We spent hours walking the beach while we problem solved with my dad. We discussed our hearts’ feelings with my mom. We dug deep into the well of pain to pull out the little glimpses of promise that I could answer those questions.

Why I raced downhill before the tragedy was totally clear. I loved it! I loved everything about the challenge and the risk of putting it on the line when it counted the most.

Even as a little girl I loved the feeling of the snow and the wind in my face. I loved the power, speed and adrenaline that came with the speeds of downhill racing; and I was a dreamer, a big-time dreamer.

In the muddy state of my mind, a sliver of clarity exposed the grief I felt in losing my life-long passion and love for ski racing.

 

The fear of risking the future with Max had completely diminished all desire to race downhill. It was a vicious circle. I was back to asking myself, “Seriously, why am I doing this?”

 

Finding the answers

Perhaps the fact that the Olympics were just a couple weeks away helped pull me back to the sport. Or maybe the responsibility I felt to my sponsors helped encourage me to find a way to get back on my downhill skis. But ultimately, with the help of my family, Max and I finally realized that I needed to find a way to love the sport again before I walked away from it.

Lee-Gartner received plenty of support from her husband Max.(Submitted by Kerrin Lee-Gartner)Lee-Gartner received plenty of support from her husband Max.(Submitted by Kerrin Lee-Gartner)

The what and the whys were finally answered. I was committed to finding a way to love racing again. It wasn’t about defending my Olympic title, it was  about not wanting to walk away from skiing like that.

No, I didn’t win a medal at those Games. I did race the downhill but without the same passion as before. And no, Max couldn’t stand on the downhill course to coach me again; his heart just wasn’t able to do it. But a couple weeks later I had success. In Whistler B.C., in the final World Cup downhill of my career, I felt the magic again; I am so thankful to have retired remembering how much I loved the sport.

With the two recent tragedies, I have been asked so many questions. Why did I race downhill? Why did I let my kids ski race? What are parents thinking? Do they understand how dangerous it is? Can’t they make it any safer? How do the racers get past this?

 

Some answers are easier than others. Simply put, I raced downhill because I loved it — I LOVED it. Our daughters raced because they asked if they could join the Fernie Alpine Ski Team to be with their friends, and they both loved everything about being a FAST racer.

Daughter Stephanie skis for Montana State University. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)Daughter Stephanie skis for Montana State University. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

As for what were we thinking as parents? Well, I suppose we were doing the best we could to support our girls in every way we knew in a sport they loved. Stephanie races for Montana State University and Riana coaches for FAST; they both still love a blue bird powder day, feeling the wind in their faces and the camaraderie of their teams.

The more difficult questions will take some dedication and time. Can they make it any safer? Yes, I believe they can. Lessons can always be learned. The priority should always be to make the sport as safe as possible, minimize risk at every level. Without pointing fingers, leaders in the sport need to move together in the direction of safety before results.

Time and experience have always been great teachers and in this, it’s no different. The racers and the ski community will get through this time of grief and tragedy by asking: What am I doing? Seriously, why am I doing this?

(Top large photo by Mike Powelll/Getty Images; Middle large photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

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